Howard University, 1990. Under the Cherry Moon is the movie Helen Jeanette Williams and Clarence Nurse went to see on their first date. The romantic comedy boasts a beautiful love song by music royalty, but the movie itself has its exhausting moments. Helen says, “I was comfortable with Clarence. He felt like home to me.” So comfortable with Clarence, in fact, “Helen fell asleep! Out. Straight up,” he remembers. “It was our first date, but that was cool to me. She’s just down to earth. I like that.”
Helen’s impressions of Clarence guided her desire to become his wife. She remembers, “We were at a Howard football game, having fun.” In the midst of their good time, the electrical engineering major excused himself. He went to go study. “Who does that? That was sexy to me.” She learned that this display was simply a part of his character. Clarence refused to shirk the sense of responsibility to himself, Helen says. “He’s the first guy I ever met who presented himself as a man to me.”
Born in Queens, New York, Helen stated quite frankly her desire for marriage. Storybook romance is not a component to this love. “I have girlfriends who tell me these fantastic stories about elaborate gifts and the Eiffel Tower… no. We are not romantic. Everything is just straight up. I took this boy to Jersey, we picked out a ring. I said, ‘You’re gonna buy me a ring! You need to marry me!’ ”
Now, Helen is as prim as she is wild. It’s just that Mr. Nurse meant something to her. Her radar was on him. “I come from a family that marries. Everybody is married. My uncles have married, divorced and married the first wife again. My parents have been married for over 40 years.”
Clarence didn’t really propose… he processed. The courtship between the two lasted a little longer than Helen appreciated. “We dated for 11 years! Yeah, run tell that! Print that! Eleven years he strung me along.”
Within that period, they planned a wedding… or three. Helen recalls, “He bought me an engagement ring just to bide time.” And when it was time, Clarence changed his mind. “So he upgraded my ring.” The couple planned another wedding. “I ordered a wedding cake. It was ready and everything. I had to turn it into a birthday cake!” He had changed his mind again. “We went to get a marriage license three times. He kept getting cold feet.”
However, Clarence had some solid reasons for his reservations. Born in the casino capital of Atlantic City, New Jersey, he wasn’t about to gamble with his life. “I wanted to get married once,” he contends. “The people who were most vocal about the fact that I wanted to wait, they’re divorced now. I wanted to be sure that I was sure.
“When I was 27, I just wasn’t ready. I wanted to be selfish, pure and simple. I wanted my own place. I wasn’t trying to rack up as many females as possible. I just wanted to feel like I could do this on my own. At the same time, I didn’t want her to leave. It was a tough predicament. She says I was stringing her along, and she may have been right. I wanted to be on my own but have a girlfriend.”
When their union got to a point where he knew he had to marry her or leave her alone, they broke up.
Helen moved to Los Angeles to pursue her acting career. Clarence says separation drew them closer together. “I think that had to happen, we had to go through that.”
Clarence didn’t grow up with the same relationship to marriage as Helen. With no familial examples, his coupling would be thoughtful, by higher design. “My parents got married because my mom got pregnant. They stayed together for a couple of years. My dad was in the picture but it was just my mom and me. There was no semblance of family structure really anywhere in my family. That’s something I wanted to change.”
The third time (the charm), the couple married at the Akwaaba Mansion in Brooklyn. “He was driving me nuts.” Helen says, “But I’d do this with Mr. Nurse all over again. I sure would. That’s us. I like our story.”
Their honeymoon destination was inspired by TV commercials of Helen’s childhood that piqued her curiosity from way back. “We went to the Poconos, honey.” On the couples tip, the Poconos is known for its unsubtle décor and risque rooms. “We stayed in that room with the champagne glass tub, yes we did. There was gold leaf wallpaper, a round bed with a mirror above it. We had our own swimming pool, Jacuzzi and sauna in the room.” Cue Barry White or “bow-chik-a-bow-wow” music. “I sure did get in that champagne tub. It was fun! Straight up.”
Savannah, their daughter, was conceived on that honeymoon.
Clarence recalls laying eyes on his first child. “It was amazing, and scary as hell. Helen had a fever, so they put Savannah in neonatal ICU.” Observing the care his daughter was receiving, “I was like, wow, they’re really taking care of her here.” He remembers, “When we got home, we laid her on the couch and just looked at her. Then [we] looked at each other and said, ‘What are we going to do?’ I was scared to hold her! Eventually you get used to it.”
As an only child, Clarence wanted more than one kid. “But like two,” he says. Savannah is now 11. Clarence Jr., 9, was born, and then Saafiyah, 7, was a big surprise. “We were shocked, but Saafi is a great blessing. And I like the number three.”
Helen was in graduate school when she decided to change paths. “I thought I wanted to be a college professor.” As a talented actor and singer, she realized she wanted a different kind of audience. Clarence, a focused electrical engineer, didn’t get all the layers Helen was determined to experience in herself at first.
Starting TracyChambers Vintage (named after Diana Ross’s illustrious character in Mahogany—a personality parallel to her own) by working street fairs in New York, Clarence didn’t understand Helen’s plan.
“He was like, ‘Am I failing you as a husband? Why do you have to sell clothes at street fairs?’ ” The budding entrepreneur explained. “I had to let him know that this had nothing to do with him.” She asserted her independence. “I had fun out there!”
With three kids, the street fairs took too much time out of her weekend. “I want to hang out with my kids. I enjoy my kids.” TracyChambers Vintage is now run out of the garden apartment of their brownstone. New York fashionistas shop Helen’s by appointment to experience her unique vintage vantage point. “I love where I am right now. I love having my own business.” She continues, “It’s not that Clarence didn’t support me, but he just doesn’t get my lifestyle choices. ‘Why can’t you go get a corporate VP job or be a buyer somewhere?’ No, I’m not doing that.”
The kids love the business. “Saafiyah counts the money at the end of day. She even ran after a customer because she didn’t see an exchange of money when I started taking credit cards. ‘You better pay my mother! You didn’t pay for that!’ That’s why I don’t let them in the store anymore when I’m working.
“But I like that they see I have my own business. They know that Daddy works and he has a job, and they also know that Mommy is building something. I tell them, sometimes I make no money, sometimes I make a lot of money. I tell them so they see there is a process. I like that. I think it’s a good lesson for them.” If she had it her way, “I want all my kids to be entrepreneurs. They will never get fired.”
Clarence and Helen are the best of friends. “The kids think we’re a TV show. They think we’re crazy. This is the thing. We don’t pretend nice in front of the kids. We could be hugging and kissing and then he’ll say something [she thinks is] wrong. I’ll curse him out, we won’t speak for an hour, and then it’s over. We are open about everything that’s age-appropriate.”
The biggest challenge for Helen and Clarence isn’t being married. It’s raising kids. “The marriage part is easy to maintain,” Helen contends. “But when you have kids, you have to plan meals, make schedules, drop them off, pick them up…”
Clarence agrees. “Helen and I get along so well, being married to her comes easy to some degree.” He adds, “Being a father is challenging. I’m still learning. I just try to set an example, lay down values. But you are thrown a wrench at every turn. You just hope you do the right thing.”
Friday nights belong to Mr. and Mrs. Nurse. They have a wine and watch Scandal. As a husband, Clarence wants Helen to say he is responsible, loving, fun, serious about finances and how they raise their kids. As a wife, “The only thing I want Clarence to say about me: ‘She sexy and she look good.’ Yep! That’s what I want him to say.” As far as the sexiest thing about Mrs. Nurse? “Her lips,” Clarence confesses.
Married for 12 years, together for 23, Helen says, “It’s a long time, and I still feel young. I have to parent, but I still feel like a kid.
“My father says the measure of a successful family are its children. I believe that if you can go through it—all those unexpected things that happen—and stay together, you are doing well,” Helen says. Clarence wants his family to be present for one another and always recognize the love they have for each other, which starts with a solid foundation. He says, “Everything is grounded in love right? You can’t go wrong with that.”
The Coolest Black Family in America is an EBONY.com original series: an ongoing look at the intricacies, layers and compelling beauty of African-American family life. Of course, The Coolest Black Family is not one family but many. In fact, we’ve found that there are as many Coolest Black Families as there are versions of cool. Also consider: family doesn't always mean mother + father + kids. What defines family is connected hearts and supported souls. Ride with us weekly as we crisscross the country in search of kinfolk whose cool is so palpable and real, it comes second only to their love. Think your cool fam qualifies? Email us at [email protected] (with Coolest Black Family in the subject line)!
Joicelyn Dingle travels to find the Coolest Black Family in America exclusively for EBONY.com. She splits her time between Savannah and Brooklyn. She is currently completing a documentary on the making of Honey magazine and the 1990s urban publishing era. Friend her on Facebook. Follow her on Twitter @editorialgenius.